On Conservatives and Conservatism

Today’s self-described1 “Conservatives”, while not actually practicing what our parents or grandparents generations would have recongnized as Conservatism2, certainly have become unbelievable adept at deflection and self-delusion.

The cornerstones of what I today refer to as “traditional” American Conservatism have always been: maximizing individual freedom, limiting government, financial responsibility, and free markets. Each of which, let’s be honest, has been abandoned by “modern” so-called Conservatives, especially during the current administration.

Of course, a lifelong Democrat who suddenly decides to call himself a “Conservative”, or at best a man whose stated political allegiance has flip-flopped repeatedly from Democrat to Independent to Republican and back and forth and back and forth as the wind blows, does not a Conservative make.

Much like “traditional” American Conservatism, “modern” so-called Conservatism also has cornerstones. However, the cornerstones of “modern” American Conservatism, are vastly different, from those described above, and in fact, are not terribly unlike the cornerstones of American Liberalism: hypocrisy, lying, vast overspending, increasing both the size and reach of the government, and what can only be described as, “who cares what’s good for the country so long as we can stick it to the other side of the aisle.”

These are the current hallmarks of self-described “Republicans” as well as self-described “Conservatives” (including those who self-describe as “Non-Republican Conservatives”).

If Freedom is the right to swing my arms how I see fit, with the understanding that my right to swing my arms ends where another man’s nose begins3, as the saying goes, then we can readily see that the first cornerstone of “traditional” American Conservatism, maximizing individual freedom, has been consistently eroding at least since that faith-based initiative that we refer to as “9/11”.

Likewise, with the other cornerstones, limiting government, financial responsibility, and free markets, we too see consistent erosion — especially since “9/11” — and scarcely a word from so-called Conservatives.

The national debt4 doubled under President Bush, and doubled again under President Obama, and it ain’t looking any better under President Trump.

President Reagan embraced free trade. He made free trade a part of his 1980 campaign and went on to negotiate and sign the Canada–United States Free Trade Agreement, which ultimately led to the North American Free Trade Agreement. President Trump is scared of free trade, so much so that he declared NAFTA “perhaps the worst trade deal ever made” despite President Reagan still being the hero of Conservatism5. And what has he given us in its place? the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement, which may in fact be “a terrific deal for all of us” (only time will tell), but which is also a zillion miles away from free trade. And let’s not forget his disatrous decision to engage in a losing trade war with China — one that his own administration’s numbers make clear has cost this country dearly.

Now, “traditional” American Conservatism is certainly not dead, nor even on its death bed. But it has clearly been abandonded by the Republican party, and is no longer being practiced by so-called Conservatives.

When asked why he or she would support a policy that is clearly contrary to the principles of Conservatism, a modern so-called Conservative will almost always answer with an attempted rationalization that amounts to either: the two wrongs fallacy (“they did it first”), consequentialism (“the ends justify the means”), or the false equivalence fallacy (“comparing apples to oranges”). Let’s be clear about one thing: the routine use of any of these forms of flawed reasoning is evidence of, at best, ignorance, and at worst, a lack of good character6.

Now some modern so-called Conservatives will attept to argue that hypocrisy, lying and the overwhelming desire to simply stick it to the other side are just human nature. Well maybe, but as anyone who has ever raised children will tell you, picking your nose and scratching your butt are certainly “just human nature”, because all children do it. But, as we grow up, we are tasked with overcoming, and fully expected to overcome, these examples of “just human nature” and limit them to situations where we are alone in private, like say, in the restroom. And the same is true for all the other forms of bad behavior I’ve detailed above. For exampe, being more interested in “winning” an argument than in arguing truthfully7, may well be human nature, but as rational adults, we are expected to overcome this impulse and adhere to our good character.

People who want to self-identify as Conservative, should be willing to learn what Conservatism actually is and isn’t, and if they don’t agree with the principles of American Conservatism (again, what I today refer to as “traditional” American Conservatism), there’s nothing wrong with that. Go right ahead supporting a President who was running trillion dollar budget deficits before the pandemic, is scared of free markets and loves to engage in trade wars that nobody wins, would gladly further limit individual freedoms (and has in fact, threatened to use the United States Military to do just that), and has no intention of reducing the size of or limiting the powers of the federal government. Go right ahead, that doesn’t bother me a bit. Really.

Just don’t call yourself a Conservative, because you most certainly are not one.

yeah, in a minute…

1 I prefer the term “so-called” for reasons which will become obvious.

2 For more on what Conservatism actualy is, please refer first to the excellent book, “The Conscience of a Conservative,” which of course was written by Ronald Reagan’s hero, and the father of American Conservatism, Barry Goldwater. It’s an old book, sure, but with the exception of roughly one-third of the book that deals specifically with issues of the day (1960), it is still a remarkable and concise book that details the cornerstones and finer points of American Conservatism.

Secondly, please refer to George Will’s, “The Conservative Sensibility,” a truly excellent book written by a man whose Conservative bona fides are beyond question. Will details how the Republican party and so-called Conservatives have lost sight of what Conservatism actually is and today just want to “stick it” to the Dems, a sad transmutation of what was once the party of Lincoln.

3 The original quote: “Your right to swing your arms ends just where the other man’s nose begins” was made by Zechariah Chafee, an American judicial philosopher and civil libertarian, in “Freedom of Speech in Wartime”, 32 Harvard Law Review 932, 957 (1919). Various permutations of this quote have incorrectly been attributed to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., among others.

4 In all fairness, on the first day of Ronald Regan’s presidency, the United States was the largest creditor nation on Earth, and by the end of his presidency, the United States was the largest debtor nation on Earth.

5 Of course, let’s not forget that Donald Trump was no fan of President Reagan. Sure, he praises the man today, but that’s just a recognition on his part of how revered Reagan is amongst his base. In his book (where by “his book” I mean the book written by liberal journalist Tony Swartz, and credited to both Trump and Swartz), “Trump: Art of the Deal”, published at the end of Reagan’s presidency, Trump cited President Reagan as someone who could “con people” but couldn’t “deliver the goods.” He wrote that Reagan’s charm “won over the American people” but that at the conclusion of his presidency, “people are beginning to question whether there is anything beneath that smile.” Donald Trump: Reagan was con man who couldn’t ‘deliver the goods’

And don’t forget that “to promote the book, Trump launched a political campaign that tore into Reagan’s record, including his willingness to stand up to the Soviet Union.” When Donald Trump Hated Ronald Reagan The subhead reads, “The GOP front-runner praises the conservative icon now, but in 1987 Trump blasted Reagan and his team.”

Don’t be fooled by his tendency to “tell ’em what they want to hear” — Donald Trump is no fan of Ronald Reagan.

6 What is character? Character is the habitual pattern of thoughts, actions, words and feelings that a person displays over time. Someone with good character understands that they should make good choices and they always endeavor to do just that.

Making good choices means making choices that adhere to behavior that is commonly accepted as “good”, like being honest, responsible, fair, caring and respectful, as opposed to choices that adhere to behavior that is commonly accepted as “bad” or “wrong”, such as lying, cheating, stealing, being deceptive, hurtful, or disrespectful. A person with good character shows over time that they almost always do make good choices.

Of course, everyone makes mistakes, and making a mistake does not mean you lack good character. But a person with good character not only learns from their mistakes, but actively tries to minimize future mistakes. And most importantly, when a person with good character makes a mistake, they take responsibility for it.

A person with good character will make good choices even when it’s challenging or downright hard to do so, and even when no one but themselves will ever know.

I’ve always tought my children a helpful shorthand: good character is doing the right thing, even when no one will ever know if you do the wrong thing. And, if that sounds like a pretty fair, or even pretty close, definition of “values” or “morality”, well, you’re not mistaken.

7 And let’s not forget, winning an argument does not require dishonesty if the facts are actually on your side.

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